Academically Ugly: Geometric Horror in H.P. Lovecraft

One of the consistent motifs in the short fiction of H.P. Lovecraft is the description of creatures and spaces as non-Euclidean. Most readers are still able to identify the horror of these creations (as well as the rampant racism in the stories) but the description itself is highly academic. For many readers this isn’t enough to build a mental image on, most of us couldn’t tell you what makes geometry Euclidean or not. However, Lovecraft’s work remains an icon of the horror genre that continues to be the inspiration for all kinds of stories in a wide variety of media. His use of highly intellectualized descriptions are given enough context that they still have an impact for a lay reader while leaving a deep well of symbolism for more in depth readings.Read More »

Act Your Age: A Rant about Children in Fiction

Children in most fantasy fiction decidedly do not act their age but instead behave like adults whose appearance has just been adjusted for emotional impact. Most often this is in pursuit of giving the book a gritty or disturbing feel rather than an actual need for child characters. Way of Shadows by Brent Weeks is a shining example of this strategy and the incongruous ways the supposedly child characters behaved was a source of frustration throughout the entire book. There is a place for child characters, like in The Ender Series by Orson Scott Card where the setting and plot are truly dependent on the youth of the protagonists. Any mention of age in Way of Shadows is a source of immediate frustration and break in immersion which could have been solved either by letting go of the pretense of the character’s ages or by adopting a strategy more like the one in the Ender series.Read More »

The Author Through the Looking Glass: Feelings of Fiction in Memoir

Memoirs allow a degree of creative freedom that is not as pervasive in the more formal styles like biography or autobiography. While this can result in a more interesting and accessible book there are also narrative choices that make memoirs harder to connect with as something ‘true’. In the iconic book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Robert Pirsig speaks of his past self as an entirely separate person, his experiences seeming like a kind of fiction to both the primary narrator and the reader. Much more recently (and with mixed reviews) Confessions of a Sociopath by M.E. Thomas the author intentionally anonymized herself, making it difficult to attach her life to the idea of a real person. These narrative choices that are allowable in memoir can make these books far more compelling to read but they also have the tendency to move the books towards fiction in the mind of the reader.Read More »

Nearer My God To Me: Positioning of Deities in The Poppy Wars and Percy Jackson

Whether drawn from faiths in the real world or completely constructed by an author, divinities of all sorts are a useful way to explain the source of a character’s power. The ways in which these characters are positioned in relation to their presiding deity allows for different kinds of conflicts. In novels like R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy war the gods are distant and must be channeled through a person in order to operate in the real world. This model stands in opposition to that of series like Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books where the power is innate to the character and cannot be revoked even if they should displease their patron (or in the case of the Percy Jackson books, their parent). The world and relationships enabled by these systems have very different feels and both Kuang and Riordan are able to use them to great effect.Read More »

Unseen: Informal Magic in Among Others

There is no wiki for Jo Walton’s Among Others and even if there was it probably would not be particularly helpful. This is because unlike many other, more well-known fantasy stories, the magic the novel is not something that can be codified for fans to pour over the technicalities of. Instead Among Others is built around an informal magic system that the reader experiences only through Mori, the first-person narrator. Walton is very successful in moving focus away from the minutia of magic systems that are often at the heart of fantasy novels towards the ways in which Mori’s magic integrates with the real world. This is a novel that is successful in its world building choices but that also runs the risk of disappointing readers who expect to find a complex system to engage with.Read More »

Selection: Some Thoughts on Deciding What to Read

I get asked about what I read fairly often and usually by people who encounter my reading habits in the context of higher education. This is unsurprising given that my reading strategy very intentionally is designed to give me an edge in a classroom, but I always have mixed feelings about suggesting that others read the way I do. That isn’t to say I don’t think people should read, its more so that I read with very particular goals in mind and for people with different goals or resources my way of organizing my reading would not be the best use of their time. I spend a great deal of my free time reading with the primary goal being breadth of knowledge. I want to know as much as I can across a wide range of subjects which pays off for me in an academic setting. I can walk into most arts and humanities classes and be able to discuss ideas intelligently not only by drawing on facts from things I have read but by making connections across diverse subjects. This is the motivation behind how I read, and I find it very rewarding, but this is a successful strategy because of the environment I inhabit and the amount of time I spend reading. All of this to say that I don’t think everyone should read like this, but for those with similar goals, I think my reading strategy is effective (also I’m pretty sure some people like to hear about it because they think it’s a little bit nuts).Read More »

Manifesting Destiny: The Reinvention and Resurgence of the Western Genre

In many ways society has moved beyond the traditional Western stories, largely because most people have a much more rounded view of history that does not allow for straight forward narratives about heroic cowboys on some empty American frontier. An understanding of the colonial process and the long term impacts of how the United States formed makes purely celebratory westerns seem somewhat naïve if not disrespectful to the experiences of indigenous peoples so these kinds of stories do not enjoy the same kind of wide spread popularity they used to enjoy. However, in recent years there have been several successful novels that return to the western genre with new goals. Books like The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt and The Devil’s Revolver by V.S. McGrath (interestingly both written by Canadians) lean heavily on exploring the flaws in the traditional western albeit in very different ways. The Sisters Brothers is dark comedy bordering on satire which plays up the archetypes of the western to make their absurdity obvious to the reader. In contrast, the heroes of McGrath’s fantasy western fit more closely to the cowboy hero but undermines traditional westerns by taking place in a world that includes the suffering and oppression that was erased in older westerns. These new westerns reflect new understandings of history and show how beloved genres can be brought into the current day.Read More »

Unsurprisingly Evil: When Rogue Technology Stories Are Interesting

No one is surprised when the advanced AI turns on its creators. At this point in the history of speculative fiction it is almost a given – so to make the villainous reveal satisfying the author needs to have constructed a believable character. Some authors pull this off well, not that their reveals are necessarily surprising, more so that they are satisfying for a reader. On the other hand, there are creators who very much lean into the trope and use it as a shorthand to take away from genuine character building. This shortcut taking is obvious in films like Avengers: Age of Ultron while books like Chuck Wendig’s Wanders make some attempt to mask their AIs in mystery. Convincing stories about rogue technology require character building and an awareness of audience in order to create an immersive believable narrative.Read More »

Gateway Drug: Access Points to Fantasy Epics

Being a latecomer to an expansive fantasy world is often daunting and sometimes requires an unfortunate amount of trial and error to figure out where to begin. So, although authors may not have planned for their projects to end up quite so large it is still essential that their fantasy epics exist with some kind of structure to make them intelligible to readers arriving a little late to the party. The Forgotten Realms, particularly the extremely popular entries by RA Salvatore is a demonstration of the chaos that results when series organization becomes overly complex. On the other hand, the much less well-known Edge Chronicles by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell has a more accessible organization scheme. These of course are incredibly different series but ultimately their creators were facing the same problems about how to organize new additions to a series that was now more about a shared world than it was shared characters.Read More »

In the Window: Immersive Environments in Las Meninas and The Milkmaid

Books or movies are often described as an immersive experience but the ways in which these works are discussed means that it is difficult to consider whether a visual artwork could be similarly engrossing. In the world of contemporary art there are works that are truly immersive in that the viewer must directly participate in a performance or virtual reality program but there are also older, more traditional, works that build an immersive reality for the viewer. The example that comes up most commonly in art history classes is the Diego Velazquez painting “Las Meninas” but the Jan Vermeer work “The Milkmaid” provides and interesting contrast while still providing a similar viewing experience. The strategies that allow these paintings to function are often not immediately obvious as a viewer but they still give a sense of reality and physical space that is absent from other works. It is this sense of reality through artificial constructs that is worth considering not just for their use in visual art but also for the implications on other artificial environments.Read More »